As the NASA shuttle Discovery prepared to blast off into space Monday night, comedian Stephen Colbert delivered a message saluting -- and slightly satirizing -- the country's space agency.
Although foul weather delayed the shuttle launch from this morning to Wednesday morning, when it departs Kennedy Space Center, Fla., for the International Space Station, Discovery will carry seven astronauts and thousands of pounds of equipment, including a treadmill bearing the name of the late-night comedian.
When NASA launched an online contest earlier this year to name a new node of the space station, Colbert rallied fans of his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report," to write in his name. Although Colbert won the most votes in the contest, NASA chose the name Tranquility instead, in a nod to where Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the Sea of Tranquility.
As a consolation prize, NASA said it would name the new treadmill the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT, for short.
Colbert was invited to the shuttle's launch and although he couldn't attend, he delivered a message Monday night on NASA TV.
"I just want to congratulate you on a great year. Your dramatic pictures from Cassini, finding water on Mars, and your dramatic discovery of a new administration that believes in science," he said. "Though I urge you to never give up on President Bush's bold challenge: Before this decade is out we must launch a probe to find out if there's oil in heaven."
And then he cut to the chase.
"It's been a great year for me too. I, of course, was the winner of your online node naming competition. Despite my coming in first place in the popular vote, you named the node Tranquility," he said. "Yeah, that'll scare the aliens. They're not going to mess with Earth now. We might get all relaxed at them."
But his wasn't a message of bitterness.
"I was still honored to receive the traditional NASA consolation prize – a space treadmill. I couldn't be prouder that my treadmill will soon be installed on the International Space Station to help finally slim down all those chubby astronauts," he deadpanned. "Let's face it, being weightless is mostly just a desperate bid to get away from that bathroom scale every morning."
The treadmill will be transferred to the space station on the fifth day of the mission and will become the second treadmill on the station. To keep healthy while in space, each crew member is required to work out a total of two and a half hours a day (including about an hour on the treadmill).
Colbert's name blew the other contest candidates (including NASA's own Serenity, Legacy, Earthrise and Venture) out of the water. His name won 230,000 votes. The second most popular option, Serenity, earned 190,000 votes.
His ostensible victory put the space agency in an awkward position. But, all along, the agency reserved the right to overrule the voters.
"NASA will take into consideration the results of the voting," the guidelines said. "However, the results are not binding on NASA and NASA reserves the right to ultimately select a name in accordance with the best interests of the agency, its needs, and other considerations. Such name may not necessarily be one which is on the list of voted-on candidate names. NASA's decision shall be deemed final."
But Colbert isn't the only pop culture fixture to ascend into space.
The micro-blogging service Twitter will also play a role, as Mexican-American Jose Hernandez and Swede Christer Fuglesang intend to tweet in English, Spanish and Swedish.
Bound for the International Space Station about 220 miles above Earth, Discovery's arrival at the outpost about two days after launch will make for cramped quarters as 13 astronauts assemble in space for only the second time. The docking of the shuttle Endeavour in July set the first record for the biggest crowd in space when it also resulted in 13 crew members on the station.
Led by shuttle Cmd. Rick Sturckow, the crew, including Patrick Forrester, Kevin Ford, John "Danny" Olivas, Jose Hernandez, Nicole Stott and Tim Kopra, will deliver more than 7 tons of supplies, including science and storage racks, a freezer to store research samples, a new sleeping compartment, a handful of mice for a bone-loss study and the $5 million treadmill named for Colbert.
When Discovery returns home after its 13-day mission, Stott will remain on the space station until November, relieving Kopra, who has been on the station for the past two months.
Discovery's mission will also include three space walks to replace experiments outside the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory, install a new ammonia storage tank (ammonia is used to move excess heat from inside the station to the radiators outside), and return the used tank.
Before Colbert signed off, he had one last message for the NASA crew members: "I just want to say we are all huge fans here. And it has been a true honor to make merciless fun of you this year… I am 'go' to launch me. Let's light this candle!"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.